Why the Social Policies in the Green New Deal Are Essential to Its Success

By Sharon Zhang

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey speak during a press conference to announce their proposal of Green New Deal legislation, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on February 7th, 2019.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey speak during a press conference to announce their proposal of Green New Deal legislation, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on February 7th, 2019. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Since Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey released the newest draft of the Green New Deal earlier this month, economists, political scientists, and opinion writers have evaluated the merits, demerits, feasibility, and psychology of the plan, which has been called a leftist fantasy, a manifesto, a bad idea, and a frivolous wish list.

That last term, “wish list,” ties in closely with one of the most common criticisms of the GND: that the social programs it includes, like a universal basic income, a federal jobs guarantee, and free college, aren’t related to the environment. Rather, according to critics, these are line items that progressives are sneaking into the plan to justify socialist policies in the name of the climate. As Jonathan Chait contends, the plan “contains far too much prescription in areas where none is needed, using the Green New Deal as a platform to add in unrelated proposals.”

What critics like Chait miss is that the social and economic policies aren’t unrelated or even peripheral to citizens dealing with a changing environment―they’re essential to a sustainable future for everyone. As such, it would be impossible to gut the GND of its goals to eliminate what Ocasio-Cortez and Markey, in the text of the proposal, refer to as “systemic injustices” without significantly weakening its ability to deliver a green economy.

Lots of Americans can understand this. On a simple personal level, it’s easy to see the link between the environment and economics. I know intuitively that I am affected by the environment every day. When I adjust the thermostat in my home, fill my car with gas, take public transit, or recycle, my behavior is directly influenced by the climate and the policy we make, or don’t make, around it.

That’s inevitable; I am intrinsically linked to my environment. (We all are, which is why we find ourselves discussing the weather so often with strangers and loved ones.) But the nation’s economy is equally linked to the environment, in ways that have become increasingly obvious in recent years. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria together caused $265 billion in damages in 2017 alone, and the National Climate Report released last year predicted that climate change would shrink the United States economy by 10 percent by 2100 if we don’t take steps to mitigate it.

That linkage isn’t just intuitive―it’s also systemic, and it’s an issue of equality. Researchers have warned for years that climate change will hurt poor people the most and further widen the wealth gap between the upper and lower classes in the U.S.

“There is a very, very powerful connection between poverty and vulnerability to climate disasters,” says Daniel Aldana Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies climate change. “Eliminating poverty would be the single most important thing one can do to make people less vulnerable.”

Why the Jobs Guarantee Matters

Mitigating and preventing climate change would protect poor and marginalized communities, yes, but given that climate change is already happening today, building resilience is equally important. Proposals like a federal jobs guarantee, universal health care, and universal basic income can lift poor people into the basic stability that the rich currently enjoy―the ability to recover if and when natural disasters hit. What’s more, given a bit more financial stability, marginalized communities will likely participate in politics more: A 2015 Pew Research Center poll found that the least financially secure people in the country were also the least likely to engage with politics.

More public engagement democratizes power away from the ultra-rich and the fossil fuel industry, making room for policies that protect communities and the environment—policies that are already popular anyway. As Rhiana Gunn-Wright, the GND policy director at progressive think tank New Consensus and the person who was largely responsible for constructing the GND, pointed out on Twitter, “it just so happens that lots of the policies that we need to help people participate in this economy are the same policies that people will need to benefit from the greening of our economy. and in fact they become MORE necessary in the context of a GND.” (Gunn-Wright’s entire thread is worth reading.) Indeed, in order for people to benefit from policies like the jobs guarantee, they need the freedom and mobility to move somewhere for a job—which means, in turn, that they’d likely need socialized health care for the period they are unemployed, and so on.

The jobs guarantee, in particular, is crucial to the early rollout of plans like the GND. “Market mechanisms aren’t going to deliver the goods at the speed that’s required,” Cohen says. “You need a job guarantee that makes sure that everybody is able to participate in this transformation.” Take the GND’s proposal for building upgrades as an example: In order to update energy infrastructure in every building in the country, we would need to drum up a huge labor force. A federal jobs guarantee would mobilize enough people at the speed needed to reach those early goals, as opposed to relying on slower, longer-term methods.

Funding Tech Alone Isn’t Enough

Medium- to long-term methods that could be implemented over the course of a decade or so should also be part of any good plan for environmental resilience, of course, but we shouldn’t rely only on longer-term methods to solve the issue of climate change. For instance, some commentators argue that pouring investments into green technology should be the crux of the environmental transition, which is true to an extent―but even investing heavily in technology wouldn’t bring about change quickly enough to transform the energy industry within the 12-year deadline that Ocasio-Cortez cites, and that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned about. While investments in sustainable technology and energy are crucial, such success relies on “scientists developing miracle cures for our highest-emitting sectors within just a few years—and then it relies on industry to successfully deploy those cures across the planet,” as Emily Atkin writes for The New Republic. All-encompassing plans that include social-welfare programs, if done right, will make better use of the workforce and citizenry at large to aid the transition.

The idea, among Chait and critics like him, that plans should focus exclusively on environmental policy is hardly a new line of thinking. The utility of social programs in environmental protection has been the subject of debate among researchers and non-governmental organizations for years; a 1992 academic review entitled “The Evolution of Sustainability” notes that the debate has gone on since 1950, and concludes that: Those who define sustainability in essentially ecological terms do not deny the importance of values in defining the goals of society. They simply maintain that both research and debate will be better defined and more productive if the questions of values are discussed so far as possible apart from …

The GND embodies these concepts of sustainability in that it writes values into environmental policy and offers (admittedly ambitious) goals for equality that, until now, were largely distant ideals scattered among America’s progressive base. A sustainable society, as defined by the United Nations, is one that provides for its people now while not compromising the needs of future generations. Economic and environmental policies explicitly in harmony with each other are necessary for that goal.

By those standards, the U.S. today is unsustainable; in many ways, the American economy isn’t even providing for its people now, let alone those in the future. With growing income inequality and our persistent reliance on the very fossil fuels that are actively making the world a worse place to live, we can’t keep this up for much longer. In contrast, a beefy version of the Green New Deal could significantly eliminate our contributions to climate change while preventing a backslide into creating such wicked problems again in the future.

In its present form, the GND is a noble start, but would fall short in attaining its goals. Alex Baca at Slate correctly points out that better policy around land-use reallocation and densification, which is missing from the latest draft of the GND, would “address the most fundamental aspect of our carbon footprint: where we live.” Further, shortening peoples’ commutes, Baca argues, can cut vehicle emissions, and reducing sprawl could help us maintain natural land. Meanwhile, the purposeful omission of carbon capture and storage from the latest draft of the GND is risky, just as it would be risky to rely solely on technological development; it eliminates one of the already limited tools we have to fight climate change. It’s not scientifically solvent to ignore carbon capture. As Robinson Meyer writes for The Atlantic, “the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has not produced any projection that shows us hitting that target [of less than 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming] without massively deploying carbon-capture technology.”

The inclusion of carbon-capture technology and land-use changes would make the GND stronger. Even then, Ocasio-Cortez and Markey’s GND should not be viewed as some sort of definitive plan, but rather an early blueprint on which the Congress can improve in the coming years.

Those improvements, though, will still have to acknowledge and address the underlying economic issues that created this situation in the first place, and that will make it hard for many citizens to weather climate change. It would be a disservice to ourselves and our descendants to strip this ambitious plan of the social programs that critics say make the plan “ruinously expensive.” Yes, the GND will be expensive, but it’s far less expensive than allowing climate change to continue, which will cost the country hundreds of billions of dollars in the coming decades if we leave it unmitigated. We run that risk when we try to separate economics from environmental policy, as the social programs position us to fight climate change much more effectively.

Even aside from its economic virtues, the Green New Deal is already polling across both major parties as one of the most popular climate bills in recent memory. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t allocate as much money as possible to address the many interlinked problems that await us in a changing climate. Perhaps, in the process, we may find that we can pay for it after all.

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Sharon Zhang is a freelance writer who covers climate change and race. She has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in environmental studies from the University of Southern California.

This article appeared on February 27 at Pacific Standard.

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